I often contemplate what happened to some of my Catholic Seminary classmates and myself over the past 40 years. We hear about the sexual abuse throughout the Roman Catholic Church, and we are appalled by what occurred, as well as what did not happen to protect the young. This reflection is one attempt to present seminary life between 1967 and 1974 based upon my personal experience. This seminary experience was just one element playing a role in abuse. Other articles focus on the priests themselves; I present the seminary culture that enabled the abuse that followed.
Seminarians in this era had limited meaningful contact with seminary faculty and staff. Many seminarians went months, even years, without a spiritual advisor and/or confessor unless the seminarian actively pursued such a relationship. Most seminarians I knew did not actively pursue such a spiritual relationship and there was no effort by seminary staff to require, or even encourage, long-term relationships as a part of priestly formation. We lived with seminary staff and many of them engaged us in a social and friendly manner. However, many faculty members were reclusive or engaged only with seminarians of their choice. They served more as faculty members of an educational institution; not as mentors in spiritual formation or guides for ordination and parish ministry. We were on our own.
Sacramental engagement was also a personal choice. Although I often missed daily mass, mostly to have one more hour for homework, faculty never approached me regarding my absence. Some seminarians rarely attended mass. In major seminary, the four years before ordination, less than half the seminarians attended daily mass. Regarding Confession, the seminarian could request this sacrament but there were no scheduled hours; for the most part this sacrament was non-existent by 1972.
When I think about the role of priests in the daily life of the Church and their role in the lives of Catholics, I am troubled by the lack of systematic screening and absence of professional services—licensed counselors and psychiatrists—prior to ordination. I recall several young men with troubling behaviors and unusual personality traits for a profession that requires daily engagement with Church members and the general public. I knew of personal grudges between seminarians, controlling relationships between older and younger seminarians, sexual predatory behavior involving seminarians or faculty, confusion and ambiguity about practicing celibacy, depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts. Some seminarians were so lonely and depressed that they walked the halls at night looking for someone to talk to pass the time.
During preparation for ordination, there were no discussions, guidelines, workshops, or classes on ethical behavior for a priest. The understanding seemed to be that you would know your role and the behavior expected to fulfill that role.
In my first priest assignment, in a rectory with three other priests, expectations were unspoken and determined by me. Beyond sacramental obligations, I could do what I wanted and spend time as I pleased. I enjoyed the freedom to pursue my interests within my priestly role, but I found this lack of accountability and expectations unsettling. The pastor was very good to me in his own way. However, he drank heavily and had no understanding of his mentoring role. At one point I was approached by an older priest, and understood from dinners and movies that he was interested in a sexual relationship. I withdrew from this relationship within weeks. He latter was convicted of child sexual abuse and sent to prison.
Some of my seminary classmates became engaged in inappropriate relationships with young persons. There was limited intervention by other priests in these behaviors. The lack of appropriate screening and training in the seminary, as well as the lack of accountability and mentoring regarding newly ordained priests are factors in the child abuse scandals within the Church. Parents trusted priests without reservation. Some priests took children and teens on car rides, overnight trips, and vacations. They provided gifts and money. In many cases, this trust in priests proved tragic. Considering the religious culture of the time, I understand this trust by parents. Catholics considered priests to be above reproach.
I was involved in a sexual relationship with another seminarian. For two years we spent every night and day together. I am not presenting this as an indicator of future abuse but as an example of the environment in the seminaries of this period. Many of our classmates knew of the nature of this relationship and several faculty mentioned this close friendship. At no time were we seriously questioned or confronted about this relationship, the related violation of church teaching, or the violation of the celibacy commitment if this continued beyond ordination. We lived in our own world within the seminary. No one questioned us or challenged the implications of such a relationship for future Catholic priests. This is not a condemnation of same sex relationships. Rather, it is another indicator of my experience of the dysfunction at Catholic seminaries during this era.
None of this personal reflection provides a justification for the sexual abuse perpetrated by priests ordained from these seminaries. I take responsibility for not speaking out during my seminary experience and addressing the troubling behavior I observed among faculty and fellow classmates. Many of us knew a great deal but we said nothing. Most of the priests ordained from these two institutions have served the church and the Catholic people with dedication, care, and love. My intent is to add another perspective of a troubling era within Catholicism specifically related to priestly formation or lack thereof in the seminary. I survived and found a very fulfilling life after the seminary and priesthood.